Your child as a teacher

A parent asked me recently why her third year child was grumpy at home, and, some days, didn’t want to go to school (new thing!).  (To clarify, in the Montessori classroom, there are at least 3 ages.  In my classroom, they range from 2-5.  Most children start at 2-3- first year-, 3-4 is second year, 4-5 is third year.  In that time, they move from fascinated newbies to competent olders.  We call the third year children “teachers” and expect a great deal of them.  They always perform. 🙂
It caused me to reflect on what “being a (third year) teacher” means.  It is a LOT more than having a “teacher badge”, and the full weight doesn’t hit them until they are doing it (kinda like parenting, eh?)
We are asking each of them, many times a day, to help us/another child, with a work the younger child has gotten out and doesn’t know how to do, find something, do a chore (dishwashing, putting plates away, making snack), finding their name for snack, washing their dish, using watercolors, finding the markers/clipboards, paper, finding their key word book in the folder and putting it away again, figuring out how to have snack, putting on their shoes, finding where this went on the shelf, putting on their underwear the right way, helping them up when they fall down, helping them wash their hands, listening to them read their key word book, helping them roll a rug……
Not to mention offering comfort.  Story from yesterday that made my day:  Me:(with snuffling 2 year old on my lap) “5 year old, do you know of anything that would help 2 year old?” 5: (looks at 2): “Hmmm. Are you okay?” 2: “Yes!!” (???Keeps crying.) 5: “Do you want a hug?” 2: “YES!!!” (leaps up and they both hug, 30 seconds). 5: “Would you like some ice” (????) 2: “YES!!!!! (Leaps up and they go get ice together. Several other children want ice. Ice all around, via 5.) 
What a great example of one of my favorite MM quotes: “a young child can learn something from an older child which they would never want to learn from an adult.”  So true, every day.
So, if your child is grumpy and worn out after a morning at preschool (more than usual), they are working very hard.  They are using all of their problem-solving, empathy, and patience muscles, which, as we all know, is hard work.
I will reassure you that we do not interrupt any “teacher” at his/her work, if we can help it; they are not here to sacrifice their own learning or process. We do not give them jobs that they would never want (“Can you clean up that vomit?”) or with children who are terribly upset or things which we think are too much.  They are “support staff”, and mostly doing things which we think they will enjoy /feel competent doing.  We are very appreciative of their help, always, and thank them.  We really are appreciative!
The olders are the most enticing thing in the environment.  More so than the materials, and much more so than the adults.  They really ARE role models of concentration, self-directed activity, good humor, calm, purposeful movement, self-regulation, play, enthusiasm, and trust.  They are what convinces the new children that they actually can/will be able to cope in this new space, and may want to.

More on confidence


Okay, how do I recognize confidence, or lack of it?

Confident children:


try things

play independently


ask for help

Children who lack confidence:

get stuck in activities/requests and repeat them without pleasure

don’t play


try to keep adults involved with them

in a mixed group, prefer to talk to adults

talk about adult issues/concerns

get frustrated easily

tease others

do things for negative attention

(In very young children, some of these latter things can indicate boredom. Of course, don’t “entertain them” but help them switch gears :”I see you are bored with these blocks.  It is time to put them away and find something fun /go outside/feed the cat/ put your socks in your drawer.” Notes: I am not asking them, or listening when they protest.  If they are not engaged, they are bored.  if they are bored, it is my job to teach them how to get over being bored without having to pick a fight with me, the cat, the dog, or the blocks!)

To build confidence: if you have engaged adequately (they are not pining for a little adult one-on-one) change/create the environment (go outside and get so busy that they cannot get you engaged with them negatively, and have to find something to do), express confidence, don’t rescue or entertain, endure the learning curve (they don’t liiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiike it; it is uncomfortable), don’t get sucked into power struggles or the appearance of neediness, express more confidence, take care of yourself.

I believe, all children are hard wired for success, and all people must struggle a bit.  A healthy child will seek out appropriate struggles, and take them on when they are ready.

Teaching about “practical life”


Another amazing thing Montessori figured out is that children need/love to be taught self-care/real world skills.  She called this “Practical Life” and it is actually an area of the curriculum, like Language and Math.

And why not?  At each stage of life, don’t we like people to gently tell/show us how to do something new, instead of fussing at us when we screw it up?  This week at camp, we had to remember to teach the junior counselors how to make juice from frozen concentrate for popsicles and how to wash dishes.  Is it shocking that they don’t know, or is it normal that families now buy juice fresh and have dishwashers?  As I’m sure you can tell, it shocked me at first, growing up, as I did, in the Black and White Era, I forget these things.  And then Montessori invites me to remember what it is like not to know.

And, when it is presented as “look at this”, practical life is fun to practice. “Pouring works” are always popular (see picture above:)), and so are cooking skills, cleaning skills, folding and putting away things skills…if they are taught and not fussed about.  Later, there are more skills: how to check the oil in your car, how to save money in a painless way, how to buy life insurance, how to buy a house.  It would be nice if someone taught us these things.

A different way of learning


I love this picture for lots of reasons: because of who took it, the children in it and the fact that they are fascinated, not by me, but by what I am doing. (“What is she doing?, you ask.  This is our little preschool “graduation”, and I came up with a metaphorical activity to try to show that we will never forget them.  They add colored sand to a bowl of sand that we use every year.  They have added their “color” to our memories of Mary’s School.  What they love?  Putting their hands in the sand. :))

I have had parents ask, in the grocery store: “Is this lady someone you would like as your teacher?”  Oh, dear, what am I to say, or do, to deserve that?  Children love attractive young people, and I am past that! Otherwise, I look like any other lady.  What is there to love?

BUT, as when we go to Montessori training, they tell us that we are only 1/3 of the equation; it is: children, environment, teacher.  Our main job is to set up the environment. If the environment works, the children are happy.  It certainly has nothing to do with how I look!

So, the teacher sets up the environment (actually, Montessori called us “guides”, which is a cool term, but hasn’t caught on.), for safety, for interest, to stretch children, to entice them, to comfort them, to allow them to be together AND apart, to allow them to move, to have structure to give them support, to teach them how to interact, to allow them to take care of their own needs…lots of things to consider.  So, if it doesn’t work, we move things around, take things away, have more lessons on how things work.

So, all the children came to sit with me to see what I was doing. That is how it works in a Montessori classroom: they want to be part of what is happening.  They want it.  We invite them, and they come.  (And if they don’t want it, yet, they don’t have to do it. But that’s another story.)

And that is a different way of learning.

A child at work

dsc_0220_41(I often learn what I think when answering a question :). This is an answer to a prospective parent who asked: “Why do you call it “work?” (what the children do.) Such a great question!)
While I am wide awake, I will answer about “work”: Montessori was a medical doctor, not a “teacher” and worked at first, as a doctor, with children who were not expected to learn; this was around the turn of the century and we don’t know much about what diagnoses they had, but they were lumped together as “idiot children.” She noticed that, not only could they learn, they seemed to want very much to learn. “Education is a natural process carried out by the child and is not acquired by listening to words but by experiences in the environment. We call this process the work of the child.” She noted that concentrated “work” (purposeful activity, self-chosen) seemed to allow deep contentment. As these children had a variety of disabilities, she found (from doctors in France who were working with the deaf) and made what we call “materials” which were self teaching and sensorial in nature. Much of what is in the classroom was designed by Montessori over the years as didactic materials for children to explore (the movable alphabet, the sandpaper letters and the math materials are some of the most wonderful of these, I think).

She found, after observing children with a variety of these “materials” (many of which she would try and discard) was that they seemed willing and eager to practice many skills with a suitable materials (tracing, buttoning, counting), and, again, seemed to get great satisfaction from perfecting skills, especially when the activities were self-chosen.

It is not a free for all, though, and we limit those who are what I call “messing about” because they are obviously bored. Our goal is for the children to find something engaging.

I also often note that adults think that children are not doing “anything important”, and so tend to interrupt them. I think this is another use of the word “work”, to imply that, if a child is sitting and watching a cricket, or drawing a line, or pouring water, to watch and see if it is “work”; i.e., something deserving respect and not interruption.

Of course, “play”, as in “play an instrument, or sport” is something that takes a lot of “work”, but, in our culture, “play” with children usually connotes “not much”: “just playing”!

If the room was “quiet” which I can’t imagine, it was because, at this time of year, everyone has generally learned how to come in, find something intriguing, and get to it, at least for a little bit at a time. I do think that there is a hum, a bit like a beehive! I think you asked about ages; we started with a brand new 2 up to a brand new 5, and our goal is about 6 2s, 6 3s, and rising Kinders. The classroom is multi-aged so that there are all abilities together (everyone is good at something, and learning something) and, mostly, so that the oldest children can be mentors to the youngest children. Over the three year cycle, everyone gets to go from being mostly a learner to being often a teacher. Oh, so, yes, the point is to commit, if you can, to three years, so that each child can end up as a triumphant teacher!

Anyway, I am off to bed, and I am quite sure that this is more than you ever wanted to know about anything, ever; I do love thinking about this stuff so!



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I just read a Facebook post from a friend who was crediting her sister (wonderful picture of the two of them!) for inspiring her in her work.

I immediately thought of Martha. Martha MacDermott. She was a consultant at the school where I did my internship. Our director had trained at Xavier in Cincinnati, where she was on faculty.

You can see Martha above, laughing. This is how I remember her. This is a celebration of her, so in the larger picture below, you can see the bagpiper celebrating her Scottish upbringing. Her speaking was even more intriguing because of her lovely accent.

Montessori herself was an intimidating, inflexible person, it seems. You had to be, to be a woman with a powerful international presence at the turn of the century. Look at Margaret Thatcher, 50 years later! And Martha was also tough, but it was always clear that she was only telling you what she knew to be true, and that she was always on the side of clarity for the children. She wanted children to understand, and to love what they were learning, as she did. This was so obvious.

In the above video, Martha tells that she started her training in London, in 1958. This was just at the beginning of the Montessori “revival” in the US, so, soon after, she came here to mentor many new schools.
I have many “Martha stories”, and I love telling them. It is wonderful to have a new place to tell them:) My staff and children will be so pleased, that I am not telling them, again!

1) Martha comes, and it is her 60th birthday. She does the “walk around the sun”, and does it by decades, after giving a lovely lesson on counting by 10s with the bead materials. Then, instead of telling us a story for each year, or decade, she sat and told us (3-6 class) about a birthday she spent in an air-raid shelter during the London Blitz. Not a sound was heard, as all the children watched her face.

2) All the teachers are watching Martha give a variation of the checkerboard (Montessori multiplication lesson). The boy, with whom she is working (aged 7 or so), is intrigued by being the center of attention, and starts to make himself belch on command. Fascinating! What will Martha do? She stops, and puts her hands in her lap until he is brought up short and looks at her. She asks, quietly: “Do you know who I am?” He stammers: “Well, yes, you are Martha!” She answers, with delight: “Yes! And I am also someone who very much wants to do this lesson with you today. Will you do it with me?” Lesson continues from there, with great appreciation from both participants.

3) Martha comes, and tells the children (3-6) all the stages of her trip, from leaving her apartment to getting on plane to fly to Charlotte, to driving to Boone, with all the stops on the way. The children are riveted.

4) A 3 year old watches Martha and an older child do the entire 50 piece US puzzle map. She obviously loves it, and, when it is put back, goes and gets it, and falls, scattering all the pieces. Instead of telling her that it is too big for her, and that she has made a mess (reading out of my own script), Martha looks in the face of crying Lou and says: “We can fix this together.” The she helps Lou match the pieces to the control map by color: “Which color shall we do next?” This all takes about an hour, during which Martha does not look annoyed, or like she would rather be doing more important work. When I asked her later why she did not name the states as they put them in the puzzle (cramming in information was always in the back of my mind), she answered: “That was not what drew her to the work, and she has plenty of time to learn them. She was having a sensorial experience with the shapes of the pieces.”

5) My daughter adored Martha, and wanted to write her letters. As a 5 year old, they were brief, and had invented spelling. Martha answered each one, with stories from her day.

Martha said, “Maria started a new conversation on the planet for the possibility of children and it will never be completed.” Thus, the Montessorian’s job continues.

I am striving every day to see children as Martha did.


Travelling Light

From a Montessori teacher/mom in India: My Learning as a Mother, Teacher and School Administrator

Travelling Light

“The Tile Game is a beautiful and popular material in the Elementary class, lending itself to intricate tessellations, mosaics, calculations of area and all else that the imaginative mind of the child dictates.

I was reluctant to present Abhimanyu with the Tile Game. The domineering teacher in me reasoned that he ought to pay for his indolence. I slyly omitted him from the list of children invited for the lesson. But he was there, totally absorbed.

Abhimanyu travels light and sly omissions don’t weigh him down.

The next day I saw him make an exquisite pattern with the tile game.

I wish I could have simply stood back and admired it, but the stubborn teacher in me didn’t give up. Dripping with mockery I challenged him to find the area of the “beautiful pattern.” I couldn’t wait to see his regret and guilt, his surrender to rigour.

I expected him to –
– Count the number of triangles, parallelograms, trapeziums and hexagons
Triangles = 66
Parallelograms = 36
Trapeziums = 24
Hexagons = 13

– Find the area of each of those shapes applying the formula
Triangle – ½ x 2.5 x 2 = 2.5 sq cm
Parallelograms = 2.5 x 2 = 5 sq cm
Trapeziums = ½ x (2.5 + 5) x 2 = 7.5 sq cm
Hexagons = ½ x 15 x 2 = 15 sq cm

– Multiply it by their number
Area of triangles – 2.5 x 66 = 165 sq cm
Area of Parallelograms = 5 x 36 = 180 sq cm
Area of Trapeziums = 7.5 x 24 = 180 sq cm
Area of Hexagons = 15 x 13 = 195 sq cm

– Sum it all up together.
Total area = 165 + 180 + 180 + 195 = 720 sq cm

And he didn’t know how. Ha!

In less than ten minutes Abhimanyu had the area of his beautiful pattern. He had converted his parallelograms, trapeziums and hexagons into triangles.
66 + 72 + 72 + 78 = 288 triangles

All triangles became rectangles and the rectangle was a familiar friend!
½ x 2.5 x 2 = 2.5 x 288 = 720 sq cm
Abhimanyu travelled light and quick.

I doubly suffered because I was his teacher and his mother too. I moved around arduously with tons of load on my body and soul and appreciated “hard work.”

One Sunday afternoon he was out with the wind in his unkempt hair and shabby clothes and often unbrushed teeth. He came in with a big smile, hugged me saying, “Thanks Ma, for loving me only so much.” Gave me a little kiss and was off.

Abhimanyu truly travels light!”



To be back at work/school. Yes, I would have loved the thought of endless days to lie around and watch Gilmore Girls while I search the Web for vital information, and bottomless cups of decaf, but I don’t have any grist without the imput, and the little ones are endlessly wonderful. I got to watch someone, aged almost-5, work on the hundred board while listening carefully to the conversations around him, then return to the job at hand. Amazing brains. I got to share one of (many) favorite books: Moses the Kitten, and watch the big reveal (the kitten is nursing with the piglets!!!!) I got to listen to 2 ks dictate stories out of their own imaginations. I even got to watch a four month old work and work on turning over, while her mother let her enjoy the process without helping her!